They have trod fascinating and unique pathways on their journeys into winery ownership and their stories are as compelling and varied as their wines. I have been fortunate to know many of the individuals in the story and to taste wine with most of them both at their wineries and in my own tastings.
It takes enormous energy to start a business as demanding as a winery, and then it takes extraordinary talent to move successfully from the dream of good wine into the competitive arena of wine evaluation, where every nuance is subject to critique and judgment.
Each of the wineries mentioned has known the thrill of success and the agony of failure and each today is the proud maker of wines that are earning great critical acclaim and bringing them the recognition that their hard efforts have rightfully and richly earned.
The truth is, almost anyone can call himself or herself a winemaker. The cost of entry at the low-production end of the scale is not cheap, but it is not prohibitive either. There are now more than 3,000 separate labels in California, and the greatest majority are family-run enterprises whose outputs are in the several thousands of cases at most.
Compare that to the corporate wineries whose Chardonnay runs of 100,000 cases and more are standard occurrences, and you can see that these urban producers belong to a different club entirely.
All wineries make wine and size in and of itself is no sin, but the hands-on nature of the wineries in the inner East Bay means that their products are not likely to reflect the common denominator.
These are individual winesmade by individual artisans. Just as all works of art succeed on the unique talents of their makers, so, too, do the wines of the urban wineries rise and fall in the same fashion.
Jessica has chosen to focus on the newer, smaller producers. Given their struggles in the shadows of the better-known names, that decision makes a great deal of sense. Still, I would be remiss in developing my list of urban winery successes and the wine recommendations offered below if I ignored Rosenblum Cellars.
No need here to repeat that whole story here. It has been told in this column many times, but it is worth remembering that this is a winery that started in Kent Rosenblum's backyard. Even with its high standing and public recognition today, it is still family-owned and run.
In my travels, I have visited region after region where the only wines you can find are those of the area. Here in the inner Bay Area, we do not observe those kinds of limitations. But, you will find it well worth the extra bit of time it might take to locate a few of the limited production wines recommended below.
2005 A Donkey And A Goat, Chardonnay, Brosseau Vineyard, Chalone ($40): Tracey Brandt told me recently that she did not expect me to like her new Chardonnay because it was high in acidity. Au contraire, madame, it is a very fine wine and I am quite fond of it.
While it is true that the wine is firm in structure with minerally, stony and green apple notes, it also has depth and refreshingly bright and brisk balance as part of it rewarding makeup.
$ 2006 Blacksmith, Chenin Blanc, Ventana Vineyards, Monterey County ($15): Run, do not walk, in your pursuit of this amazing Chenin Blanc. Where once Chenin Blanc, a grape that produces magnificent wines in France's Loire Valley, was planted all over coastal vineyards here, it now joins the list of white grapes that has receded into the background under the onslaught of Chardonnay. This honeysuckle-scented effort reminds us that good winemaking trumps all, and the light hint of honey in its fruit-driven flavors adds a note of delightfully rich complexity.
2006 Dashe, Riesling, Potter Valley, Mendocino County ($20): Very few wineries in California have ever succeeded with a dry-styled Riesling of the kind made in Alsace and in Germany's Rheinpfalz region. There was a time a couple of decades ago when many wineries tried, but the virtual absence of the grape from our attentions these days is all too vivid proof of their failures.
Well, Mike and Anne Dashe, who have made their marks to date as red wine specialists, are now showing that they have a light touch as well. This wine is wonderfully aromatic with its smells of flowers and white peaches and its smooth, crisp passage across the palate makes it a wine that I will come back to again and again. You should as well.
2005 JC Cellars, The Impostor, California, ($32): One reason why Jeff Cohn's standing as a maker of dramatic red wines has grown so rapidly is found in wines such as this one. He has combined Zinfandel with a collection of Rhone varieties and come up with a rich, berrylike, deep wine that may carry an extra bit of ripeness but in no way gives in to that trait. It is worth noting that Cohn's amazing competence with both Zin and with Rhone wines is born directly from the combination of his time at Rosenblum Cellars and the fact that he goes to France every Spring to learn from important winemakers like Pierre Gaillard and Francois Villard.
2005 Harrington, Maurice Galante Vineyard, Russian River Valley ($35): The first and most obvious thing that struck me in my recent chat with Bryan Harrington was that he did not worry about how hard it is to get really first-rate Pinot Noir these days. He simply identified the top vineyards and went out and found ways to get the fruit. His passion for the grape shows in this wine, my favorite among his bottlings I have tasted. It is a balanced, polished wine in which the grape is allowed to take the lead rather than overarching ripeness or pushy oak. Instead those elements become integral parts of a mannerly approach to Pinot Noir.
2005 Lost Canyon, Las Brisas Vineyard, Los Carneros ($40): This Pinot Noir specialist has authored several attractive bottlings from the 2005 vintage and this is my favorite of that attractive bunch. Its soft red cherry fruit aromas are filled out with hints of cocoa and a touch of dried herbs, and its openly accessible flavors have been cast in the same fruity, brush-and-herb seasoned mold. The Lost Canyon tasting room, on the estuary just south of Jack London Square, is open on weekends, and tasting is free.
2005 Rosenblum, Harris-Kratka Vineyard, Alexander Valley ($35): Alameda veterinarian Kent Rosenblum took his award-winning amateur wines public in 1978, and by that time, there were already a dozen or so urban adventurers dotting the landscape. Somehow, they have all passed into the history books save for Rosenblum's grand adventure that has now matured into the "daddy" of the inner-city vintners group. His long lineup of impressive wines spans the state from north to south and from the coast to the Sierra foothills. But, no wine from Rosenblum has pleased me more and longer than the Harris-Kratka Zinfandel because it is almost always filled, as it is in this vintage, with picture-perfect berryish fruit wrapped in a rounded inviting texture, and yet it sports enough structure to encourage a bit of aging by those who would allow cellaring to smooth out their wines a little more.
Reach Alameda-resident Charles E. Olken at email@example.com. E-mail Olken for a sample copy of his monthly newsletter, Connoisseurs' Guide to California Wine.